Christopher Caldwell on how sentimental chronology skews our sense of time :

Time may slow down from hour to hour, but from year to year it has a uniform tendency to accelerate.

We can demonstrate this with a little game. We are now in the year 2010. Measure the number of years back to a certain event in your life – say, your entry into university, if you attended one. Then measure the same number of years back from there. Invariably, the event in the middle will seem closer to this year than to the older date, even though it is equidistant from the two.

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Putting things into quantitative chronology rather than sentimental chronology can lead us to reassess a lot of historical prejudices. How new a country is the US? Benjamin Franklin’s birth in Boston (1706) is nearly as close to Dante’s and Chaucer’s 14th century as it is to the present. That makes the US seem positively ancient, not really a New World at all any more. On the other hand, to know that Ronald Reagan’s birth (in Tampico, Illinois, in 1911) is closer to Waterloo (1815) than it is to us makes the country sound as if it were just founded. How recent a problem is the automobile? Well, the first car that Karl Benz manufactured (1885) is as close to the reign of George II (1727-60) as it is to us. How modern an ideology is communism? Marx’s and Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848) is closer to the English and Scottish Stuart monarchy (which ended with the Glorious Revolution in 1688) than to us.

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It is particularly discomfiting to play this game with cultural products that are supposed to be, by definition, new, fresh and youthful, like rock music, for instance. The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks (1977) is closer to the second world war than it is to the present. The Beatles’ release of “Love Me Do” (1962) is closer to the first world war than to us. Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock (1954) is as close to the Spanish-American war (1898) as it is to us. There is nothing hipper than hip-hop, but the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), the first rap song, is closer to Al Jolson’s last hits than to the songs in the rap charts now.

(Via: Rod Dreher )

Articles by Joe Carter


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